When the Plague came to Eyam

Eyam in Derbyshire is famous for having isolated itself when the plague arrived from London in 1665, but here is a heartbreaking, local description of what happened, from Highways & Byways of Derbyshire:

The plague arrived in a box of clothes from London, received by a local taylor in September 1665. Plague was known in the area as it had scourged London the previous year, and 30 years earlier in a nearby village of Curbar, several families had been wiped out.

Eyam had been a village of 8-900 people. By the end fo September, 6 died. In October 23 more, 7 in November and 9 December. The cold paused the spread but failed to stop it, as it broke out again in the spring. In June, 19 dead, July 56, August 77 and it seemed the village would be wiped out.   

“The countryside grew frantic with terror when it heard of the mortality in Eyam. As far off as Sheffield, strangers who were suspected of coming from Eyam or near it were driven away with sticks and showers of stones. People forgot their humanity; their panic left no room for pity. We would not say that they were more heartless than now. In the last great cholera and small-pox epidemics in England and, in more recent years, during epidemics in the Highlands, the same phenomenon has manifested itself. And so the rigid isolation of Eyam was, perhaps, not quite so voluntary as some writers have supposed. The people who lived in the neighbouring villages shut the gates of mercy and compassion on any fugitive from Eyam.

[The Rector, William Mompesson persuaded] his people, with some show of resignation, to remain in the village. He gave them consolation; he inspired them with hope. He wrought them up to that fine exaltation of spirit which nerved them to face death as disciplined sailors face it in shipwreck – he made the manifest duty of self-sacrifice appear reasonable. We do not know at what precise moment in that ghastly 12 months Eyam was cut off from the world and began to depend for its sustenance upon the supplies of food which were set at certain appointed places on the boundaries. The supply was organised by the Earl of Devonshire, who nobly remained at Chatsworth. Mompesson had sent away his 2 little children at an early stage; his wife Catherine stayed by his side and was his most devoted helper until she, too, was stricken down in august. This drew from him, on September 1, a most pathetic letter to his patron: “This is the saddest news that ever my pen could write. The destroying angel having taken up his quarters within my habitation my dearest wife is gone to her eternal rest, and is invested with a crown of righteousness, having made a happy end. Indeed, had she loved herself as well as me, she had fled from the pit of destruction with the sweet babes, and might have prolonged her days, but she was determined to die a martyr to my interest. My drooping spirits are much refreshed with her joys, which I think are unutterable.

Mompesson thought that he, too, was doomed, and spoke of himself as “a dying man”. But he escaped the infection…

Mompesson was not the only clergyman in Eyam during the plague. His predecessor int eh rectory was also there, The Rev. Thos. Stanley, who had been ejected in 1662, after an 18 year ministry, because he would not subscribe tot he Corporation Act of 1661. He stood by Mompesson’s side and did his duty just as nobly. so when, a little later, some paltry-minded bigots appealed to the Earl of Devonshire … to have Stanley turned out of Eyam as a recussant nonconformist, the earl refused with just indignation. “It is more reasonable… that the whole country should testify their thankfulness to him who, together with his care of the town, as taken such care, as none else did, to prevent the infection of the towns adjacent…

The most pathetic memorial fo the plague and the spot best worth visiting in Eyam is the little plot of ground where lie the Riley graves…. Riley is not a surname but a place name… a small stone enclosure of irregular oval shape. Tread reverentially, for this place has seen the utmost intensity of human anguish, and the memory of such tragic suffering should hallow it. In this little patch fo ground, in a wide open field on the hill-side and commanding a lovely prospect are 7 graves, all of which bear the name of Hancock. One, that of John Hancock, the head of the family, is a table tomb with the date August 7, 1666 and the inscription:

Remember, Man,

As thou goest by,

As thou art now,

Even so was I.

As I doe now

So must thou lye,

Remember, Man, 

That thou shall die.

The Latin monition “Nescitis horam: Vigilate; Orate” is also written on this tomb, doubtless an echo of the inscription on the tomb of Catherine Mompesson. The Hancocks were working people who would not, in normal circumstances, sleep beneath Latin. John Hancock, the father, died on August 7. He had lost a son and daughter on 3rd: another son and another daughter died the same day as himself; a third daughter died on 9th, and yet a fourth on the 10th. Seven deaths in the house in 8 days! Only the mother escaped, and she, so tradition says, buried her dead with her own hands, dragging the bodies down the hillside, frantic and distraught with grief. There was no one to help – the people of Eyam had their own dead to bury. Her neighbours, the Talbots, a family of father, mother, 2 sons and 3 daughters, had been wiped out the previous month.

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